In the spirit of author-asking question, seeing as how we’re all writer-ly types around here, I’m going to pose to you Deb’s author question:

What is the best/worst writing advice you’ve ever received?

Weather and Writing

William Wordsworth wrote this wonderful poem called “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (also known as “Daffodils”)–and all of the emotions he felt while walking out in nature. He was inspired by the wind and the clouds, and the peace that they produced. Wordsworth is commonly considered one of the early conservationists, concerned with nature and how it was handled right at the beginning of the industrial revolution. As a man who was outside more often than in, it seems natural that the weather should have influenced his writing.

What about writers today? With all of the television and amusement parks and malls, does weather influence us?

I think it does, if in nothing else but mood setting. I’m sure we all have a favorite weather to read in: summertime on the pool, curled up by a fire when it’s snowing.

My favorite weather to write in? Thunderstorms. Doesn’t matter what I’m writing, whether it’s something funny or sad or tumultuous like a thunderstorm. There’s just more energy in the air itself. I like the hum of it. Plus, it doesn’t happen that often, so the rarity adds a certain appeal.

How about you? Do you like to write on your back porch in summer, floating along on your swing? Do you like to write during clear nights with lots of stars shining into your window? What inspires you about the weather that you write in? And, conversely, what weather can you absolutely not write in?

Mentor of the Month: Nathaniel Hawthorne (w/help from Jhumpa Lahiri): Where do titles come from?

There’s a line in “The Custom House”: Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

For those of you familiar with Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, you’ll know she has a collection of stories titled Unaccustomed Earth–the stories cover the new generations finding their own home. So, it’s the perfect title, written by Hawthorne, years and years and many generations ago.

Now, my question of the day: Where do titles come from?

Nowadays, an author is incredibly lucky if they get to decide their own title (who knows if Lahiri got to pick Unaccustomed Earth?). But I think an author should still be able to figure out an acceptable, maybe even the perfect title for themselves. Though, perhaps, I am an author far too attached to her titles and won’t listen to anyone. Not you or you or you or you.

But how to pick a title?

Places where titles have come from in the past:

  • lines from other books or the book itself
  • quotations (which I guess includes lines from other books)
  • totally made up
  • references out in the world
  • lots and lots of other places

Where do you come up with your titles? How do you decide what’s important in the story/character/plotline that you want to convey as sooooo important that you’ll emphasize it by putting it right on top? What are some of your favorite titles?
Sidenote: Titles Jenny Likes (does not me she loved the books as much, but the titles helped her pick up a book)
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coehlo
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
…and many others

More toys, I’m getting spoiled; or the Wand Chooses the Wizard

My birthday present from Shane arrived a couple days ago. It’s a set of really great pens. Three fountain pens, three roller ball, and three ball point. It’s like the evolution of pens all in one box!

I tried out all of them, of course, with a little help from Owen and Bronwen. They all work wonderfully but I couldn’t help but start to pick favorites. And it reminded me of the scene in Harry Potter–which is all now fresh in mind since I finished reading them to prep for the new movie–where Ollivander describes how wands choose the wizard and, while you can use another wand, it won’t work as well for you as yours.

So here’s my wand/pen:
Fountain, five inches, silver, flowy.

What’s your wand/pen?

Are we only as good as our tools?

Top Chef: Masters will be premiering tonight. Needless to say, I am thrilled. Real chefs with real restaurants who are well-off enough to play for charities.

But something struck me as very interesting–initially I thought, whoa, this’ll be tough because these guys really know their game. They’ve gone through the real-life ringer already. They must be awesome. What challenges could possibly, well, challenge them?

In the past Top Chef has had chefs make amuse bouches via vending machine, forced them to cater street parties, twisted their chefly arms into creating a unique ice cream flavor, given them budgets of $10 to feed a family of four. Not easy. The tasks force the chefs to get creative and use all techniques available to them. (Still not as hard as a round with an Iron Chef, I’m pretty sure, but definitely taxing.)

Then, in the preview/teaser I hear one chef say that he doesn’t shop for ingredients in a grocery store. That brought me up short–then I realized they have all their ingredients shipped in straight from the farms, lifted right up out of the ocean, or butchered a block away. These ingredient are brought in by purveyors…meaning the chefs don’t head into a grocery store and sift through the offal to get the gold. So even something as simple as sending these professional chefs out into a grocery store with a time limit is really something that makes their life difficult.

All this made me think about writing.

What if we did not have the happy computer tool that everyone has? What if we had to make our own pens, develop our own ink, etc. etc. etc. With the invention and popularization of the technology I’m using even as I type this out, everyone thinks they’re a writer. More and more and more people are bombarding agents with manuscripts hastily typed out and sped along. But typing isn’t writing. Not all of the people click-clacking away would think about writing if they had to go pluck the bird that would give them the quill (or hunt around outside for an appropriate tool). If writing were an inconvenience, would we still do it?

Imagination is needed to write, like cooking. A certain skill level is needed to produce something worth reading or eating. Technique is given to utilize the necessary tools of the trade (grammar and language for the writer, ingredients for the chef–without those basic things there’s nothing). But if you don’t have a chef’s knife or a computer, are you doomed to never produce something worth tasting or something worth reading?

Sure, you can pummel vegetables to death, but carrot mush just isn’t as tasty when compared to neat slices of carrot. I’m sure you could write a dissertation without spell check or a backspace button…but who will want to decipher the crap you’re putting out?

Is the easiest way to separate the wheat from the chafe to simply take away the tools and see who can come up with something brilliant? In Quills the Marquis de Sade is depicted as writing with his own blood (and fecal matter) because he can’t stop the writing that needs to come out (or perversions…whatever you want to take from that…).

I know what you’re thinking: Shakespeare didn’t have a typewriter. But he’s Shakespeare. That’s my point. I bet Shakespeare would have written in blood. (Oooo, maybe he did–“Out damned spot!”)

What tools do you, as a writer, absolutely need in order to write? Blood and a needle? Pencil? Paper? Spray paint and a wall? Fresh clean snow and the call of nature? The computer?

Deadlines and the Drink of Your Choice

John Kenneth Galbraith: “Any writer who wants to do his best against a deadline should stick to Coca-Cola. If he doesn’t have a deadline, he can risk Seven-Up.”

I just got back from a coffeehouse filled with writers. I now wonder at the melding of caffeine and writing.

In college I had a great friend who would slam Mountain Dews to finish three papers in one night. And he was successful at those papers and now attends an MFA program in Oregon, where I can only imagine what his wife goes through to get him to stay still at two o’clock in the morning.

In the quote above, Mr. Galbraith touts the importance of caffeine in relation to a deadline. Apparently soda, now the metabolic-disorder-king-of-evilness, was the poison of choice at that particular time (1970ish times).

Today we have moved on into the Country of Starbucks. Where espresso reigns and there is plenty of syrup for those who, to paraphrase Deb, do not like the taste of coffee with their coffee. Lattes, mochas, frappacinos. All those faux Italian words that will eventually confuse European-traveling Americans.

Why is it that writers are drawn to it? Seriously, if you want to meet a writer just swing a dead cat around a coffee shop and you’ll hit at least two wannabes and probably a journalist–and you’ll be kicked out for one or two healthcode violations. Deb met another author at It’s a Grind just recently. At work, where there is a cafe, I see at least two or three people with laptops or notepads out–scribbling away.

Are out-of-house pages automatically in-coffehouse-pages? Does caffeinated=creative? Are jittery hands the hands of an artist?

Short story hook question

There’s been lots of talk about how important a good hook is for a novel–because that leads to better query letters, etc., and that way people have a good grip on what you’re writing.

But how about with short story queries/submissions? As a rule, you put your whole story into the mix and let the magazine decide based on the story. Some writers don’t even put a cover letter in their submission package, let alone worry about a hook. However, would they be better served with a cover letter telling all pertinent details of self and story (word count, etc.) along with a hook line like the one you’d use for a novel? Obviously, the sentence would be shorter, at the very least.

For example:

Dear SuperMagazine,

Enclosed please find “The Story Aaron Told”, a short story of 2,000 words. It’s a story-within-a-story about two writers figuring out the mystery of ‘where stories come from’ as they decide the fate of Paolo, their character, and the twin babies he sews together.

Etc. so on a so forth,
Jenny SuperWriter

When I was an editor, I admit to not reading all short story submissions to the end and disregarding ‘animal’ poems out of hand. Sometimes I didn’t even get past the first paragraph of a story before going, “Not happening”. I realize so many things depend on the writing of the story itself. But what if I’d had a really great hook telling me what the story was about? Would I have finished some of those disregarded stories? Would the writer have turned it all around and impressed me?

What do you guys think?–and how have you submitted short stories? Cover letter? No cover?

Bar Research

I suppose if you’re going to write a novel it should be about something you’re interested in. After all, at some point, you will have to research various aspects of your piece–so that you don’t sound like a total schlub to the people who read your work.

So Ali has graciously offered to let me follow her around one night this week so that I can get an inside look at how a bar is run. You know all those little bitty details of things, like layout and procedure and whatnot? Apparently I have that all wrong. She has been hounding me to fix the ‘bar stuff’.

The closest I’ve ever been to mixing drinks is as a barista. According to Ali, mixing coffee and mixing alcohol are two totally different beasts…though I notice a remarkable similarity in the layout of the sinks (she sent me pictures, which I have diligently saved to my computer). I look forward to snooping around.

Here’s a question for you: What novel would you write, just so that you could do the research part of it all? Would you set it during a specific time period–like the Salem witch trials, just so you could go to Salem around Halloween? Or about a specific subject–like rock climbing?

Kickin’ Ass and Takin’ Names

I only have one submission left to read! Yippee!

It’s all part of my devious plan. If I finish the submissions, then that leaves more time for my own writing through the rest of the month. Here’s the strike though: too much space between the written critique and the verbal critique. So I have to be extra, extra written…if that makes sense.

The good news is that if something consistantly bothers me through the month about a story/novel excerpt, then I know that it’s a real issue and should definitely be brought forward.

So here’s my question of the day: Is it better to do critiques early and get ’em done? Or should you wait, possibly waiting until the last minute, so that the story is fresher in your mind? Or do you blame the writer–if they didn’t write a memorable story, then it’s not the critiquer’s fault, right? (Hee, hee…always gotta pass the buck…)

A Genius Question

Recently, on Ali’s blog, she posted a question about what to do when you realize that something you’ve written/are writing has been done before…and by people who are probably better than you.

I have come to the conclusion that you should go ahead and write it anyway. But only if you are aware of what has been written before (hence, as writers, you should read…because you may find your ‘original’ ideas are not so much…). Then put your unique spin on it.

I feel this way because I think that there are two different types of genius.

The first is the innovator…the one who seemingly creates something new and fresh. I say ‘seemingly’ because everything is a built, at least in part, on stuff that has come before. Literary innovators, to me, include the following:
1. William Wordsworth: created a new form and school of poetry with his buddy Coleridge. The idea was to recreate an experience ‘in tranquility’ and use forms to reflect/expand upon that. Basically, it’s the first lead-in to free verse poetry…though he only used verse…but he used it for a different purpose. Hence, originality.
2. Dante: Took religion to a whole new level…or depth, I should say. Opened up the possibility of creating a new kind of view of religion (yeah, the idea of limbo…it ain’t in the Bible…that’s Dante).
3. Tolkien/Lewis: Created completely other worlds. The first real escapades into the fantasy realm (Wells and Verne arguably the original geniuses of Sci Fi).

The second type of genius I consider “The Finisher”–where the original concepts (like the ones above) are taken by a talent and finished so completely that it’s difficult for others to follow up. For example:
1. Walt Whitman/Emily Dickinson/T.S. Eliot–finishers of what Wordsworth started. No one after them has really touched their level of expertise. A lot of contemporary poetry is just cheap imitations…they can’t top these particular three (though arguable Frost and William Carlos Williams could).
2. Milton: Basically finished Dante’s work. Name another person who 1. wrote a eulogy after him and 2. wrote another religious interpretation anything like Paradise Lost. Yep, he’s responsible for the apple idea.
3. Tough to say who has ‘finished’ Tolkien and Lewis because they are so new. Generally I would think that it takes decades for inovations to percolate among the generations. But Rowling is a fair-game kinda finisher. Hard to top Harry Potter. However, because this particualar genre is so new, she could be counted among the innovators…and a strong one at that. Only time will tell.

Based on this, I don’t think a writer should be shaken by the idea that a writer has ‘done it before’. You never know if your take on an old idea will be the definitive take. So I say go for it. Just read what’s there and put your own spin on it.

Thoughts? Opinions? Am I way off base? (Naaahhhh)